A roundabout route to the roundabout

The newest configuration for the roundabout. Clockwise, from left: Edgartown-Vineyard Haven (E-VH) Road, Barnes Road, E-VH Road, Airport Road. — Photo courtesy of GPI and MassDOT Highway Division

In the upcoming round of annual town meetings, voters in five of the six Island towns will confront a non-binding ballot question that asks if a roundabout should be built at the blinker intersection at Edgartown-Vineyard Haven, Barnes, and Airport roads. Oak Bluffs voters will tackle the question on the town meeting floor.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) project would replace the existing four-way stop intersection and flashing red lights on all approaches with a single-lane roundabout. MassDOT said the $1.4-million project would include pavement reconstruction, sidewalks, drainage, landscaping, and other improvements.

This week The Times examined the history of the “blinker intersection,” as it is commonly known, the subject of considerable discussion and study for more than 10 years.

Prior to 2001, traffic on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road had the right of way, according to a 2006 Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) study. Stop signs on Barnes and Airport Roads required vehicles to wait until there was an opening in the flow of traffic.

Traffic delays at the stop signs during the summer season and several serious accidents prompted action.

In 2001, the Oak Bluffs selectmen commissioned a study by MS Transportation Systems that considered five alternatives to improve safety at the intersection while maintaining traffic flow. Those included installing turn lanes, a four-way stop, traffic signals, a roundabout and no change.

MS Transportation recommended against a four-way stop, except as an interim safety measure, and favored the addition of a traffic signal or a roundabout. Oak Bluffs selectmen elected to build a roundabout.

In September 2004, in order to meet funding timelines, the Oak Bluffs selectmen voted unanimously to hire the firm of Greenman-Pedersen, Inc. (GPI) to design a roundabout.

Less than a month later and before the contract was signed, selectmen voted 3-2 to scrap the project in response to public concerns about the potential impact on abutters, overall traffic, and bicycle safety.

Selectmen asked the MVC to monitor traffic at the intersection and prepare an analysis of the issues and possible solutions over the next year. The MVC analyzed the use of the intersection and traffic patterns during the summer of 2005.

In April 2006, the MVC released a 34-page blinker intersection report. It concluded that a roundabout would be the best of five options and less costly than traffic signals with turning lanes.

Over the summer of 2006, Oak Bluffs selectmen held three public meetings at which residents and abutters voiced their opinions. On Sept. 26, 2006, the selectmen voted 3-1 with one abstention to move forward with a roundabout.

From March 2007 to July 2009, Oak Bluffs worked with MassDOT to obtain Highway Safety Improvement Program funding for the roundabout’s design and construction. In August 2009, MassDOT awarded the design contract to GPI.

In July 2010, the MVC’s joint transportation committee, which includes representatives from each Island town, as well as others with a stake in road improvements, voted to shift road project priorities.

The roundabout design process continued. GPI submitted 25-percent design plans to MassDOT in October 2010. In December, representatives of Oak Bluffs, MassDOT, GPI, and the MVC met with the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority and Land Bank to discuss the project.

In 2011, the state accepted the roundabout project for funding. On April 20, 2011, the MassDOT Highway Division held a 25-percent design public hearing at the Oak Bluffs Library meeting room, attended by about two dozen people.

At that time, highway and GPI officials explained that the intersection did not meet the state’s criteria for a traffic signal, based on federal guidelines. One of the primary requirements is an hourly traffic volume that is consistent for at least eight hours a day. That volume was only present four to six hours at the Oak Bluffs intersection.

Two months later, the West Tisbury selectmen entered the roundabout discussion. In a letter dated June 22, 2011, the selectmen submitted a discretionary referral of the roundabout project as a development of regional impact (DRI) to the MVC.

The MVC held a public hearing in August and voted 10-3 to review the roundabout project. The MVC held a DRI public hearing on September 1 and September 22.

Following a marathon discussion on October 6, the MVC approved the roundabout in a 7-6 vote after MVC chairman Chris Murphy of Chilmark cast a yes vote to break a tie.

On November 3, Dukes County Commission appointee Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark made a motion to rescind the MVC’s October 6 vote to approve the project. Mr. Jason’s motion failed in a 6-6 tie vote. Once again, Mr. Murphy cast the deciding vote.

Following the vote, the commissioners approved a draft written decision with conditions that included bus stops, landscaping, lighting, sidewalks and a shared-use path (SUP), drainage, landscaping, and other improvements.

In December, 2011 West Tisbury and Edgartown jointly hired the Boston law firm of Goulston & Storrs to file an appeal in Dukes County Superior Court against the MVC.

On January 23, 2012, Edgartown and West Tisbury selectmen ended their lawsuit. The unanimous decision followed a joint conference call with the Boston law firm.

What the town officials learned from their lawyers at Goulston & Storrs, at a shared cost of approximately $34,000, is that regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation could move ahead with plans to construct a roundabout.

On February 2, 2012, the MVC unanimously approved a proposed design and siting of four bus stops with pullout areas on the approach roads to the roundabout.

Opponents mounted a campaign to place a non-binding ballot question on all the town ballots but failed to meet the filing requirements in Oak Bluffs.